The Aam Aadmi Party-led Delhi government has proposed to make travel by buses and metro rail free for all women in about three months. The measure is meant to encourage more women to use public transport, which the government reckons is the safest mode. But safety is the wrong proposition being put forward by the State government to win approval for the plan, which comes ahead of the Assembly elections. Free rides will, undoubtedly, increase the use of public transport by women as metro rides have become rather expensive after May 2017.
However, there are some problems inherent with the proposal. One, women who can afford to pay the full fare will form a larger proportion of female travellers on the metro. Two, women who should ideally benefit from free rides might still not use the metro or the buses, simply because such modes of transport do not connect their place of residence and place of work. Domestic helps who walk 2-6 km daily fall in that category. And, three, it discriminates against poor men and boys.
Discounted fares for certain classes of commuters, including students and seniors, together with daily and weekly cap on fares might encourage greater use of buses and metros. That requires widespread adoption of smart payment cards that are valid across various modes of public transport.
Cities such as London and Sydney are among the many that have such a system in place. The Oyster card, for instance, is valid for travel through all six zones of London, has a daily cap of £12.80. Likewise, the Opal card in Sydney comes with a daily cap of A$15.80 and weekly cap of A$63.20. On Sundays, the maximum fare is A$2.70.
For the Delhi’s poor, particularly those living in crowded slums and narrow lanes, where public transport is some 15-20 minutes walking distance from their homes, the government could do well to start free e-rickshaw rides for women and children and thus address both their safety and local commute concerns.